Slickers and slackers

Some MPs are workers, while some are shirkers. Yet they are all in line for a pounds 9,000 pay rise. It's time for our representatives' salarie s to be performance-related, argues Anthony Bevins
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In a passageway deep in the bowels of the Palace of Westminster, there is a noticeboard for the Parliamentary Works Directorate; the backroom staff who keep the physical fabric of the Commons in good working order. By the side of two card-swipe machines on which staff clock in and out each day, the board sports a photocopy of the printed words of an 18th-century essayist, Sir Richard Steele: "Every man is the maker of his own fortune."

Scrawled alongside in felt-tip are the words, "No more overtime", and the sarcastic conclusion: "Morale is sky high."

Today, the Prime Minister will publish the much-trailed report of the Senior Salaries Review Body and its recommendation that MPs should award themselves a 26 per cent pay rise of pounds 9,000 a year.

The difference between the MPs and the constituents they represent could not be more sweetly illustrated. Next week, MPs, unlike the Commons staff who are losing out on overtime, will be the makers of their own fortune; voting themselves a pay rise that hardly serves as a public example of the Government's demands for restraint.

MPs are not paid overtime, and they do not have to clock in and out each day. But what they actually do for their pounds 34,085 pay is between themselves, their whips, and their maker.

As for putting themselves about in their constituencies, one recent poll suggested that 60 per cent of voters could not even name their MPs, never mind keep track of how hard they worked.

The pity is that some MPs are undoubtedly flogging their guts out, working long hours in recognition of the privilege of their democratic role. Some of them are so slick and efficient that they make a breathtaking contribution to the Chamber, the committee corridor, party groups, constituencies - and spare the time for outside work on the side.

But there are others who swing the lead and take the taxpayer, the voter, and Parliament for a ride. The problem is that today's pay rise recommendation will not distinguish between the slick and the slack.

Those MPs who spend much of their time outside Parliament, earning small fortunes in company boardrooms; those MPs who spend their time in the bars rather than the Chamber, committee rooms, or even the library; those MPs who swan off around the world on free trips hidden under legitimate auspices that do not need to be registered - none of them will be distinguished from the workhorses who try to make the Commons perform its proper function.

One such dedicated workhorse is Quentin Davies, the Tory MP for Stamford and Spalding. He is a City slicker in both appearance and background; first class graduate of Cambridge and Harvard, former diplomat, ex-director of Morgan Grenfell and Dewe Rogerson International.

In the last full parliamentary year, Mr Davies attended a record 111 sessions of various standing and select committees; vetting legislation and monitoring the activity of Government departments. For good measure, he also shows that it is possible to provide a complete parliamentary service - including the occasional revolt against the Government, and a resolute Conservative defence of the European Union and One Nation Toryism - and maintain commercial links with the business world.

In the Register of Members' Interests, he includes service as an adviser to NatWest Securities, for which he declares payment of between pounds 20,000 and pounds 25,000, and a parliamentary consultancy with the Chartered Institute of Taxation, for which he gets between pounds 10,000 and pounds 15,000. Nevertheless, in terms of his parliamentary effort, Mr Davies is worth every last penny of his pounds 34,085 pay, and he is not alone.

The men and women who lead the Commons select committees that shadow each Government department, and the people who chair the standing committees which give line-by-line examination of all Bills, clearly deserve their money. That is also the case with other MPs, Labour and Tory, who do not shirk the unglamorous but vital committee work. In the last session of Parliament, 31 Bills were examined in 209 standing committee meetings.

The slackers are in a minority, but a strong minority. There are also some MPs, particularly former cabinet ministers, who deem themselves far too grand to serve on standing committees; others just do not put their names forward. They don't take the money and run, they just take it.

The House of Commons is a club, not a factory. While parliamentary staff clock on and off, MPs come and go as they please, subject only to the disciplines that may or may not be applied by the whips.

Certainly, as the Daily Mail discovered to its cost in 1978 when it had to settle, it is not possible to allege that MPs are absent from the House just because they are not attending committees. If MPs are put on a committee and are then absent, that can be proved because attendance is logged and recorded. If they do not belong to committees in the first place, absenteeism is impossible to prove .

Nevertheless, it is possible to say that MPs are silent or speechless in the Chamber of the House. Because Hansard records can prove such a statement one way or the other, expensive libel actions can be avoided.

On that basis, there was a report in1983 that 10 MPs had left the Commons speechless, having "failed to record one spoken word in the Chamber of the House of Commons in the last session of Parliament".

Equally, it is a fact that Jack Aspinwall, the Conservative MP for Wansdyke, is not recorded as having spoken one word in the Chamber of the Commons for a full parliamentary year, from 27 April 1992 to 5 November 1993, according to Hansard Indices.

Mr Aspinwall, sadly, is a sick man and has been ill for some years. He is said to figure on all Conservative sick lists, as does Sir Julian Critchley, who has a Hansard record of Commons Chamber silence for the whole of 1993. In the last year for which full returns are available, 1994-95, neither Mr Aspinwall nor Sir Julian are recorded as having served on any standing or select committee of the House of Commons.

According to the best parliamentary traditions, they are both Honourable Gentlemen and it can therefore be expected that they are delivering a full and dedicated service to their constituents.

But undoubtedly there are other MPs who do not give unreservedly to their constituents, and are not on any sick list. There are slackers as well as slickers in the House.

One senior Labour MP said yesterday that he knew of "stars" who delegated responsibility for constituency surgeries - where constituents seek MPs' advice and assistance - to local councillors.

When, or if, MPs go back to their constituencies, there is no way of knowing what service they provide. Nor is there any way of knowing whether they are driving all the way back to far-flung seats at a fixed expense- rate of 74.1p per mile. It is known for example, that some MPs drive to the far North and back, "earning" pounds 500 or more for the trip. Receipts are not required

Who knows what MPs will be doing during their 11-week summer break from Westminster later this month? Who knows, following the introduction of, in effect, a three-day working week at Westminster, what they are doing with the rest of their time? MPs now are only required to attend the House from Mondays to Wednesdays, with few full-scale votes on Thursdays and the House often not sitting on Fridays.

MPs say they do go back to their constituencies, and, in the traditions of the House, they are all Honourable Members. But who really knows?

The question that is now to be posed is: How should they be paid? Should the slicker, Mr Davies, be given the same pay as the slacker, who has to remain anonymous because of the libel laws?

What happens if we double, even treble, MPs' pay? Do we then increase their calibre twofold, threefold? How can we possibly guarantee that the quality of MPs would rise to match their emoluments, when MPs are effectively chosen not by the electorate, but by party selection committees?

Is it not possible to argue that those who are genuinely dedicated to public service should not need lavish pay and perks to go into the Commons? To which MPs might reply that they would be happy if they were paid as well as the political editor of the Independent newspaper.

When such questions were posed in the past, Enoch Powell used to ask whether there was any shortage of contenders for selection as candidates. Of course there is not. If there was a market rate, matching supply and demand, perhaps MPs should consider a pay cut.

There can be no greater indictment of the quality of the Commons than the two recent reports, from the European Legislation Committee and the Procedure Committee, showing how laws are now being passed unseen and undebated by Parliament, in Brussels and Whitehall. What happened to the great role of scrutiny MPs boast about?

It is no exaggeration to say that those two select committees represent the last defences of a beleaguered democracy.

Yet in the last session of Parliament, the recorded absentee rate from the European Legislation Committee was 38.3 per cent; for the Procedure Committee it was 35.4 per cent.

Perhaps the absent watchdogs should be put on the performance-related pay that Parliament has sanctioned for the rest of the public sector. For the moment, with few barks and little bite, some of them are not remotely worth the money they get, never mind a pounds 9,000 pay rise.